How We Learnt To Love Talking On The Telephone Again
Mr Christian Bale in American Psycho (2000). Photograph by Lionsgate/Landmark Media
In early November, when US President-elect Mr Joe Biden reached out to other world leaders, he conducted the traditional celebratory courtesies in a time-honoured fashion. He didn’t Zoom Mr Justin Trudeau, his first caller. Nor did he suggest a Google Hangout with the next two – the Irish taoiseach and British prime minister. Instead, as is traditional in these circumstances, he picked up the telephone. Mr Biden may have set his election stall out on a return to a certain way of doing things, but he has not been alone in harking back.
As recently as early 2020, we used our phones for weather updates, listening to Mr Harry Styles’ bedtime stories and shopping; everything but call somebody on it. But in the months since, things have changed. Call times doubled after lockdown in the UK, according to the media regular Ofcom. In the US, Verizon connected 800 million wireless calls a day, more than double than is usual on Mother’s Day, one of the biggest for getting on the blower. In addition, call times jumped by 90 per cent to over five minutes. Strikingly, we’ve been making calls outside of work hours (peak time is 8.00pm) and taking them outdoors, with mobile providers seeing call spikes in parks and open spaces.
Not only is the telephone a neat way to kill time while taking some air, it also allows us to interact with loved ones in perhaps a more meaningful way. “We really do need that human connection,” says Dr Vaile Wright, a psychologist and senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association. “It’s a critical component, not just to managing stress but creating a life that has meaning. Hearing another person’s voice on the phone can be very powerful as a way to connect.”
The telephone had a good run of it, before the internet came and stole its thunder. “Ahoy”, the standard greeting recommended by the telephone inventor Mr Alexander Graham Bell in the 1870s, did not catch on. But his promise of immediate communication with distant shores did. The telephone transformed connection and plugged us into the human race, as Mr Raymond Chandler once wrote in his novel, The Little Sister. But as new technologies gave us other ways to be in contact, traditional phone calls became less popular.
“You’re just concentrating on voice, so you’re just present in the moment. You’re not worrying, does my mouth look weird when I talk?”
As the victim in any horror film will tell you, taking a call is usually a bad idea, especially if it’s a mass murderer (usually calling from inside the house). A 2018 survey of millennials reported that more than 80 per cent of people found telephone calls anxiety-inducing, often because you do not know the reason for the call. The internet gave us communication with less uncertainty and more control. We could delay our response, make it as personal as we wanted, and send an emoji when we really just couldn’t be bothered. All these were also easier to ignore than a phone ringing off the hook.
But the reduced personal contact in 2020 has drawn us back to picking up. And while video calls have undoubtedly been the big communication story of the year, they have not completely dominated, and not quite in the way their creators might have hoped. Zoom, the huge workplace hit, is treated by many office workers like a traditional conference call device, with the visual element turned off.
Video calls have their benefits – we are able to take facial cues from them, for example – but they can be taxing. “Video calls can feel much more awkward,” says Dr Kate Muir, a psychologist at Bath Spa University. “It is harder to manage conversational turn taking in video calls, and social interactions are also less spontaneous.”
What’s more, you’re not switching video off in work meetings solely because of the untidiness of your WFH space. “In video calls, our faces and bodies can leak non-verbal cues about how we are really feeling,” says Dr Muir. “Controlling these is why Zoom calls with workmates can be so tiring.” Telephone calls can also help us manage our anxiety, Dr Vaile argues. “You’re just concentrating on voice, so you’re just present in the moment. You’re not worrying, does my mouth look weird when I talk?”
In the uncertainty of 2020, the audio call seems to be a reassuring way of connecting. Will we still pick up once all this is over? Dr Muir thinks not; it’ll be back to emojis and WhatsApp messages for most of us. But Dr Vaile is hopeful we will have rediscovered the telephone call’s merits. “One of the benefits of this situation is the creation of new rituals,” she says. “We’ve realised how critical social connection is, even with those who are far away.” So until this passes, we’ll continue to do as Mr Graham Bell intended, and reach out across troubled waters and say, “Ahoy”.